Vertical dancing

Until now, I did not know of the existence of a sport called “vertical dancing” or “Bandaloop dancing.” But watching this video made me into a fan. Filmed during the Art + Soul Festival in Oakland, California, it shows two dancers demonstrating their grace on the side of the City Hall building.

My favorite bit: “I just landed on a window. Sorry!”

Hat tip to Karyn.

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I do not think it means what you think it means

Over on my Chronicles of Alsea blog, I’ve begun a new series called “Writing Whoops” in which I choose an erroneous writing trope and pick it apart. The inaugural trope is the gun with a silencer—which, as we all know from zillions of spy movies, makes a gunshot almost impossible to hear.

Except it doesn’t. For the fun facts on silencers and what they really do, check out the blog post and prepare to be one of those people. You know, the ones who ruin movies with truth and science.

(Yes, the title of this post is from The Princess Bride.)

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It’s Eurovision: time to learn your geography!

Last night was a big night in Europe: the annual festival of mediocre pop music, staged brilliantly and then judged almost entirely on a geopolitical basis, that we call Eurovision.

Before I moved to Europe, my knowledge of Eurovision was limited to “that thing ABBA won once.” Then I watched it in the company of my wife and still couldn’t figure out why it was such a big deal. Then I watched it in the company of several others, at a Eurovision party.

This is the only way to watch Eurovision. There must be booze, and ideally people from several different nations so you can have friendly competition. Oh, and everyone must be very open with their opinions. (This part is not usually a problem.) Everyone judges the singers based on all sorts of criteria that have nothing to do with singing, which can get hilarious, but we do at least judge the songs based on actual musicality.

Which is more than anyone can say for the Eurovision judges (and apparently a large number of people who call in their votes), because the winners are never the ones who produce the best songs.

Watching Eurovision is a great way to learn about geography and politics. Many countries can be counted on to vote for their neighbors in the “share borders, share votes” philosophy. The eastern European nations almost always vote for each other and Russia. Nations that depend on Russia for their natural gas supply also vote for Russia. (I can just picture the backroom conversations that must go on. “If you do not vote for us, it will be such a shame when we are forced to double the price of our gas exports this winter. Such a shame.”) Votes are also given in response to recent events. Heck, I wanted to vote for the UK this year just because of the Ireland gay marriage landslide. Sadly, the British entry was too awful. I did give points for the dancers doing a quick Charleston, though. And for the neon costumes.

But the UK was positively stellar compared to Israel, which we voted “worst of all.” I’m posting it here for reader entertainment. Actually watching it is not recommended.

Our group was rooting for Germany and Serbia, the two entries everyone generally liked, and there was a lot of booing when Germany got zero points. Zero! This was baffling, until I remembered that judging has nothing to do with quality of song or performance.

Germany shared its ignominy with Austria, but at least Austria’s was earned. Its entry was so bad that I used it as an opportunity to go make another drink. Upon returning to the living room, I learned that the Austrian piano player’s instrument caught fire during the performance, which was apparently intentional, but did not improve the song.

Serbia’s entry was a “take me as I am” anthem and a great deal of fun. In a rare moment of agreement, the judges allowed a decent song to go as high as tenth place. Congratulations, Serbia! And please try not to notice that Israel got ninth place.

Meanwhile, Russia kept getting top points from nation after nation, and Russia’s entry was so bland and uninteresting that nobody in our group could remember the song itself. We were only able to recall that the lead singer went for a Marilyn Monroe look and had dark roots showing in her platinum blond dye job.

When it became obvious that Germany was being frozen out and Serbia had no real chance, we all switched our votes and began rooting for Sweden, which hadn’t really wowed us but which was the only nation with a chance of beating Russia. We did enjoy the graphics, though.

Sweden did indeed take the trophy, leaving Russia in second place and Italy (which we all hated) in third. Australia made its first appearance in Eurovision this year, and clearly got the “welcome, newbie!” votes to put it in fifth place. Just wait ’til next year, Australia, they won’t be as nice then! And nobody shares borders with you.

Special mention goes to Spain, which had the quickest costume change in history (quick as in, that dress went off stage at 40 kph), Georgia, whose singer must moonlight as a member of the Night Watch on Game of Thrones, and all of those singers who managed to stand straight despite the wind machine attempting to blow them off stage. Seriously, I think a stage hand set that wind machine to “hurricane” by mistake.

I’m sad to see it come to an end, but that just gives me a year to look forward to the next one. We’re already stocking up on the booze.

Posted in culture, Europe, event, video | 5 Comments

Bee timelapse

bee in brood cell

When photographer Anand Varma was given an assignment on bees for National Geographic, he decided to work with a local beekeeper and keep a hive in his backyard. Familiarity bred fascination, and Varma fell in love with the intricate lives of bees. He photographed them from all angles and in all life stages, but…

…even with this intimate perspective, Varma realized that there was something he still couldn’t see—the full development of an egg into an adult worker bee. After the queen bee lays a single egg in a cell of the comb, the worker bees feed the egg for a few days until it hatches into a larva. The larva continues to eat and grow until Day 10. Then, the worker bees cap the cell, and 11 days later an adult honeybee emerges. Varma was captivated by “this crazy transformation, from one nasty-looking grub thing into this crazy-looking insect.”

So he spent six months working on a way to film that transformation. In the end, he had enough photographs for a one-minute timelapse. It is amazing. Just watching the internal structures of the head coalesce…holy new bees, Batman!

I can’t embed it here, but for the timelapse, many more great photos, and the full explanation of how Varma managed it, check out National Geographic’s story.

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Wallpaper Wednesday

Dancing mantids

Today is a departure from the usual scenic photos, because I love praying mantids, and this photo by Hasan Baglar is gorgeous.

Have you ever read instructions on what to do if you’re hiking in the mountains and run into a cougar? They tell you to make yourself look like a threat — raise your arms and open your coat and look BIG.

That’s what these praying mantids are doing. They have perceived a threat (probably the photographer) and are doing a defense display. Wings opened, massive, clawed front legs lifted — they are big and threatening!

Of course, for a human, it’s a bit hard to take that seriously when they look like smiling dancers. And they’re maybe two inches long. But it makes for a heck of a photo.

Be sure to click the image for the embiggened version, which has truly amazing focus. Even the feet are in focus, and I was fascinated to see how they are flexible enough to wrap around the twig. This explains why removing a praying mantis from any surface is so danged hard: they are seriously attached.

Caveat for those who have never been around these magnificent insects: do you see the spines on the insides of those front legs? They’re sharp, and the front legs are extremely strong, and praying mantids will defend themselves if they have to. So it’s always better to leave them be and admire from afar.

Posted in wallpaper, wildlife | 2 Comments

Wallpaper Wednesday


I’ve been in a deep editing dive for what seems like forever, and it finally occurred to me that one of the many things that have been dropped in the meantime are my weekly wallpapers.

Which is silly, considering how little time they take to post. So I’m going to try to get back on that wagon.

First up: the lovely city of Porto, which we haven’t visited in too long and need to get back to. We still want to take a boat trip up the Douro and sample all the wineries on our way back downstream…because I have to see for myself whether any label can beat Taylor’s.

(Click the image to embiggen.)

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National Geographic on the veranda

Last week I was watching the sunset from our veranda when I found this brilliant little lady in one of my railing pots:

Crab spider

A gorgeous crab spider, waiting amongst the flowers for an unwary pollinating insect to come by. She’s not exactly camouflaged to my eyes, but insects see differently. In particular, bees have a range of vision that includes ultraviolet, and white spiders reflect ultraviolet light quite strongly. Oddly enough, bees seem to be attracted to spider-occupied flowers in which there is a great color contrast as viewed by the bee (check out this abstract if you want to know more).

Clearly this spider’s coloration works, because when I went out to check on her the next day, this is what I found:

Crab spider and bee

Which is really impressive when you think about it; that bee is the same size as the spider! And has wings and a stinger. It must have been one hell of a fight.

The spider sucked on the bee all day long, and dropped the husk in the plant that night. As a parent of a teenaged boy, I must honor the ability of any creature to out-eat our son. Even our kid couldn’t consume his own body weight in a day, though he’d be delighted to make the attempt.

The next day it was rainy and windy, and when I checked on my spider buddy I found her tucked down in the protection of the leaves. The day after, she was nowhere to be seen, and I worried. (It’s true, I worry about spiders.)

But the day after that, she was aloft in one of the flower spikes again, hunting. I think perhaps she just didn’t need any food after that giant meal, and thus didn’t put herself out where she could be picked off by a bird. After all, there is a thin line between hunter and hunted.

I saw her again the other day. She seems about 25% larger, so I think she’s had another bee in the meantime. It’s an odd thing—I rescue bees that get trapped in our flat, and at the same time I’m rooting for the spider to catch them. This is why I’m a terrible sports fan: no allegiance whatsoever.

Go, little lady, go!

Posted in wildlife | 6 Comments

Bits and pieces

Time for another “let’s start the weekend right” post, by clearing out some bits and pieces.

First up, a video left by commenter Erik that could serve as a meditative aid: the life of a baby hummingbird, from hatching to fledging. It’s 11:30 minutes long, which is more than most folks might want, but…you’d be surprised how it sucks you in. Of course I’m a sucker for hummingbirds anyway (and miss them terribly here in the Old World), but this video is soothing in a way most are not. Not to mention that the accompanying music is one of my favorite guitar pieces, the Concerto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo.

Also: every time mama fed her baby, I cringed. How that little thing didn’t get abdominal punctures, I have no idea.


Next up: I thought there was *a* peacock spider, but it turns out there is a whole raft of them, with 38 formally named so far and another 25 in the pipeline. And we know about them because of one man.

In large part thanks to Otto’s efforts in documenting them (check out, there are now some 58 known species of peacock spider. The two most recently discovered, from south-east Queensland, are Maratus sceletus, nicknamed Skeletorus (above), and Maratus jactatus, which goes by the nickname Sparklemuffin (below).

Sparklemuffin is clearly, hands down, the BEST NAME EVER for a spider. I may also try it on my wife as a pet name just to see what happens.

The photo below is not of a Sparklemuffin. To see what that one looks like, go read the article at New Scientist and prepare to give your cute meter a workout.

Peacock spider


In the category of “Holy Cow I Did Not Know That,” the anatomical structure that many fish use to suck in their prey is also the basis of the anatomical structure that tetrapods (including us) use to swallow. The all-important hyoid bone is the key, but we had to develop a muscular tongue to go with it, because while sucking in prey works great in water, it doesn’t work so well in air.

How did that original structure, dependent on a water medium, develop into what we have?

Mudskippers have one answer. They can swallow food on dry land, by creating a “tongue” made of water. Find out how here.


Finally, for the map lovers, check out this bizzaro world map of Pangea, the supercontinent that formed 300 million years ago (give or take a few) before breaking apart a hundred million years later and scattering across the globe.

Modern pangea

Mapmaker Massimo Pietrobon took modern political boundaries, along with geographical formations that didn’t exist in Pangea’s time (rivers, lakes, continental and island borders), and placed them where they would have been when Pangea existed. It’s a mashup guaranteed to make your head spin.

Also, be sure to click that image, because the full-size version is marvelous. I note that we here in Portugal could just step across to Canada.

Happy weekend, all.

Posted in biology, science, wildlife | 5 Comments

Boa Páscoa

I love Easter in Portugal. Our tradition of many years now is to attend the Festa das Tochas in São Brás, followed by the Mãe Soberana Pequena here in Loulé. Wall-to-wall pageantry, music, beauty…what’s not to like?

I’ve written about the Festa das Tochas before, and in half an hour I need to dash out for the Mãe Soberana parade, so I’ll keep this one short and simply post my favorite photo from the morning.

Priest photographing the parade

In the middle of the parade in São Brás, this priest took a moment to whip out his camera and grab a few photos. Yes, he is representing the Church during this very old and traditional procession, but by heaven those flowers were beautiful and he was going to get a picture. So he did.

And so did I.

Posted in culture, Portugal | 4 Comments

Best April Fools’ joke this year

And the award for this year’s best April Fools’ joke goes to…

CERN, for its announcement that its researchers had confirmed the existence of the Force.

Though four fundamental forces—the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force and gravity—have been well documented and confirmed in experiments over the years, CERN announced today the first unequivocal evidence for the Force. “Very impressive, this result is,” said a diminutive green spokesperson for the laboratory.

I laughed out loud in several places, though my favorite part might be the journal article titled “May the Force be with EU.”

Go read the whole thing.

(Hat tip to Alma.)

Posted in humor | 1 Comment